Last week, Ars visited Blizzard Entertainment’s headquarters in Irvine, California, to get hands-on time with popular hero-based, multiplayer shooter Overwatch on Nintendo’s portable Switch game console.
We also talked with game director Jeff Kaplan and Overwatch Switch producer Wes Yanagi about why Blizzard decided to do this now, what the challenges were, and what players should expect to be different about the Switch version from launch into the future.
For the interview, check out the video above. For impressions, keep on reading.
I have more than a thousand hours of Overwatch on PS4, plus a few dozen more on PC. I’ve played so much Overwatch that the ultimate meter got permanently burned into my OLED television.
A lot of people reading this have probably played Overwatch too, so I don’t think we need to spend much time talking about gameplay, modes, or anything like that. At least at launch, the Switch version is identical to the game on other consoles, which in turn only has very minor differences with the PC version.
Instead, let’s talk about how Switch differs from playing on PS4 or Xbox One. That means a few things: graphics, performance, portable play, and the addition of gyroscopic controls.
Graphics-wise, it’s hard to notice a big difference on the Switch’s small screen in portable mode. I got the impression that it targets 720p with variable resolutions to maximize performance. I never had trouble seeing things, and image wasn’t noticeably fuzzy; it just looked like so many other Switch games. I did, however, notice that textures on character models were a bit lower than I’m accustomed to when really close up. And Blizzard told me it made some changes to animations and environmental physics (neither of which really impacts gameplay) for performance reasons. I didn’t notice, though.
When I played in docked mode, it was unfortunately in a small viewport in screen-capture software OBS on a computer monitor. The low resolution looked just fine, but I can’t speak to how it will look on a 65-inch TV. Worse than on Xbox One X, I’d imagine, but probably fine regardless.
Overwatch played nicely portably; even on the Switch Lite, the screen wasn’t too small for me to keep up with the action. I don’t love the thumbsticks on the joycons or the Switch Lite for this type of game, but we’ll talk more about that in a minute.
Does 30fps cut it?
As a pretty serious PS4 player, I was a bit skeptical about Overwatch on Switch for two reasons: first, I’d heard the game runs at 30fps, and while I think that’s just fine for certain kinds of single-player or non-twitchy games, I have felt for a couple of years that competitive first-person shooters have to run at at least 60fps to be enjoyable.
Long a standard for PC players, today’s other two game consoles—the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One—have almost universally run online shooters at 60fps since they launched. There are only a few exceptions, most notably Destiny 2. And Overwatch has run at a minimum of 60fps on all platforms (except very old PCs, I guess) since it launched in 2016. This is the first time any version of Overwatch has targeted just 30fps.
First up, 30fps didn’t bother me as much as I thought it would; it helps that everyone you’re playing against is also playing at that framerate, so you’re not at a disadvantage. And in my time with the game, it locked at 30fps. Framerate variance in competitive shooters is a no-go. Fortunately, it’s not an issue in most cases here.
I think you could also make the case that the Switch Overwatch scene is simply not going to be as competitive. Let’s be real: if you’re really into Overwatch for the serious competition, you’re going to play on another platform. There’s a certain culture to Nintendo players, and competitive shooters don’t quite fit in. It was telling that game director Jeff Kaplan mentioned that he’s looking forward to Switch players experiencing casual seasonal events like Junkenstein’s Revenge, and he didn’t talk a lot about Competitive mode.
30fps is a compromise, there’s no doubt. But I’m not sure it is a big one for the target audience on this platform. If you want to be at the top level of competitive play, this isn’t the platform for you, and you already knew that. I thought the Switch was just fine for jumping into QuickPlay, a seasonal event, or an Arcade match. And I feel that framerate consistency is more important than higher framerates, and Overwatch on Switch delivers on that front.
Thumbsticks and gyroscopes
The other reason I was skeptical about this Switch port was that, while the Switch joycon’s analog sticks are fine for many kinds of games, I’ve generally found them frustrating to use with first-person games. The Pro controller is another story, of course, but not everyone has one of those. And you obviously can’t use it in handheld mode.
Fortunately, I was able to play in a variety of modes during hands-on time: docked with the Pro controller, undocked with joycons, and briefly, on a Switch Lite—my personal Switch of choice. And that gave me a strong sense of how the game plays in different players’ situations.
The sticks were a real problem for me. I didn’t feel like I was playing as well as I do on PS4.
And when I first started playing on the Switch, I immediately disabled the gyroscopic controls. I’ve played for so long without them, I initially had no interest in them. But I was talking to one of the other attendees at Blizzard’s event, a skilled Splatoon 2 streamer who goes by MissClick, and she extolled their virtues. Apparently Splatoon 2 players play with a similar gyroscopic aiming option turned on—with practice, it allows them to reach near mouse-and-keyboard levels of precision for a higher skill cap than analog sticks. Not having played Splatoon 2, I had no idea. But she convinced me to give the motion controls a shot.
Even in less than an hour of play, I began to recognize their value. You do your broad and decisive motions with the sticks, but you augment that with precision aiming via the motion controls. They helped me get some headshots that would have otherwise been difficult. With enough practice, I could see motion controls becoming indispensable. They’re just not easy to learn; it’s already challenging for console players to keep track of two analog sticks, and this was essentially like adding a third.
Not everyone wants to relearn all their muscle memory to get sweet headshots. You can play without the motion controls, but I have a feeling that the same hierarchy of gyroscope players outplaying thumbstick-only players that happened in Splatoon 2 may emerge. So if you want to stay on top, you might have to learn. Just be aware of that going in.
A worthy port for a certain audience
I liked Overwatch on Switch more than I thought I would, and if you’re a casual player, I can recommend it. It’s especially attractive for players totally new to Overwatch; like so many massively popular games, it can be intimidating to start playing after everyone else has been developing their skills for a couple of years already. But on Switch, I imagine you’ll face off against some other newbies, too, making it a better place to get on board.
If you’re looking for top-level competitive play, though, the existing platforms are a better fit.
Still, Overwatch remains one of the best multiplayer shooters I’ve played in years, and I’m impressed with how well it translates to the Switch—especially if you’re open to the gyroscopic aiming. And with playing the game mobile and undocked now an option, maybe I can avoid making that OLED burn-in worse with my next thousand hours of Overwatch.
Listing image by Samuel Axon